Thank you for your reply. I do understand the points you are making about being a member of a protected class, etc., but the problem is that a plaintiff bears the burden of proving their claim by a preponderance of the evidence. In other words, you must demonstrate that it is more likely than not that you would have retained your job had you not been over 40, or had not mentioned starting a family, or had not been a minority.
Right now, I am hearing speculation as to these things being the case, but I see no direct evidence. To the contrary, it would seem your layoff was inevitable since it was part of a much larger reduction in force. If you were the only one let go that would be one thing, but generally speaking, discrimination cases become nearly impossible to prove if the employer let go of other people at the same time.
You are correct that an EEOC complaint will not cost you anything. However, the EEOC rarely "takes on" cases and prosecutes them itself all the way to judgment. In most instances, they investigate and then issue a "right to sue letter" if they find cause, which will then authorize you to file a lawsuit in civil court. Thus, the EEOC itself is not a "be all end all" remedy for discrimination. Very rarely will your dispute resolve through the EEOC, and if it does, it's because the discrimination was particularly egregious and the EEOC has decided to take on the case itself.
Moreover, the EEOC will see that you signed a release and probably decline to investigate your claim all together if they conclude your release was knowingly and voluntarily signed. The case analysis won't even extend beyond that point.
I think you are overestimating how easy it is to get past a waiver of your right to sue. These waivers are signed by hundreds of employees across the country every day and they are routinely enforced by the EEOC and the courts. Again, only if you can show that you signed under duress or due to fraud of some kind will they typically be invalidated.
Sure, you can still try to bring a claim after you sign a release, and you won't have to worry about the EEOC or your employer asking you for the money back (they can't), but expect a quick denial, especially if you sign the release.
With regard to your last question, your employer is under no legal obligation to provide references or to re-hire you. You would only have a claim for discrimination if you can demonstrate specifically that your employer is doing these things because you are "too old," an ethnic minority, or due to some other protected trait. Realistically, this is just about impossible to prove and not something that would be worth pursuing, especially because you indicate that it is happening to "us," so it seems to be something your former company is doing across the board.
Again, please feel free to let me know if you have any further concerns. If I have answered your question, I would be very grateful for a positive rating of my service so that I may receive credit for assisting you.